Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com, and SF Holding Co, China’s largest express-delivery company are working together to build an extensive network of commercial delivery drones to deliver goods to previously inaccessible regions of China’s vast hinterland.
With more than 590 million rural residents in China, drones are helping to cut the time and expense of transporting fast-moving consumer goods to remote areas where land transport costs up to five times more than in large cities. In one extreme case, a courier delivery that would normally involve a four-hour mountain trek on-foot to a cliffside village can be achieved by a drone in only minutes. JD’s current fleet of 40 six-rotor drones come in various shapes and sizes, and the quickest ones can fly up to 100km/h and have a range of 100km. Larger drones that will transport up to five tonnes of inventory are also in development.
These drone successes are especially impressive when compared to the progress of JD.com’s overseas competitors. In 2013 Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced that his firm would soon be dropping parcels off on doorsteps across the United States. While there have been small-scale trials, Amazon has moved more slowly than expected.
Since early 2016, however, JD.com’s drones have clocked over 300,000 minutes of flight time delivering products across China. With a drone R&D workforce of 200 people, and support from major backers such as Tencent, Walmart and Google, I imagine Amazon will be watching their Chinese competitor very closely.
JD.com’s newfound level of aerial access to these isolated regions also brings new safety and privacy concerns. The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) currently requires drone operators to have a licence for aerial spraying, imaging and performances, but those rules don’t apply to drones for deliveries.
JD.com has been working directly with the CAAC since its rural drone operations commenced to develop commercial drone regulations that could make China a model for other governments’ preparations for the coming swarms of civil drones.
By the end of 2018, JD.com plans to use Thailand as a hub for servicing other Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam and Malaysia. Thailand’s current drone regulations require all owners to register their drones using a stringent and manual process that can take several months. China’s updated drone regulations are likely to be of particular interest in Thailand, as we prepare for door-to-door drone deliveries of our own.
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